This is the second post in a series on the intersections between ecology, ontology, and politics. (The first reviewed Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain.) Here I focus on integral ecologist Sean Esbjörn-Hargens‘s article An Ontology of Climate Change: Integral Pluralism and the Enactment of Multiple Objects. This post can also serve as a prelude to the cross-blog reading group on Esbjörn-Hargens‘s and Michael Zimmerman’s Integral Ecology, to begin in May of this year. The next entry in this series will look more directly at Integral Theory founder Ken Wilber’s relationship with the ideas of process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.


Sean Esbjörn-Hargens is a leading representative of the school of thought known as “integral theory,” based on the philosophical writings of spiritual philosopher and polymath Ken Wilber. Esbjörn-Hargens (subsequently “E-H”) has developed his own variant of integral theory, “integral pluralism,” which he applies in the article at hand to the issue of climate change, and which he outlines in his book Integral Ecology, co-written with environmental philosopher Michael Zimmerman (see here for a summary and here for further reading).

“The Ontology of Climate Change” is one of the more impressive article-length syntheses I have read on recent post-constructivist reappraisals of the ontology of environmental problems like climate change. By “post-constructivist” I mean those that reject both a straightforward or “naive” form of realism, which posits the world as simply there as it appears, independent of our conceptions of it, and a straightforward or “naive” form of (social) constructivism, which posits that the world as it appears is fully a construction of human, social, or discursive practices. It is a post-constructivism rather than a post-realism because of the historical posteriority of social constructivism as a widely held paradigm in the humanities and social sciences. A more precise, if clunkier, term might be “post-realism/constructivism,” but the point behind post-constructivisms is to overcome the limitations of social constructivism, while retaining its virtues, in order to arrive at a more nuanced realism that includes an understanding of social and semiotic processes within its conception of reality.

Post-constructivisms, in their various guises, are ontological projects that emerge out of a dissatisfaction with the status quo in how complex worldly events and phenomena, from AIDS to climate change to biotechnology, have been conceived within the dominant paradigms of social and scientific theory. They aim for understanding how the world is “co-constructed” by social, discursive, material, biological, and other processes — which makes them constructivist in a broader and deeper sense than the term is customarily used.

The main forms of post-constructivism discussed by Esbjorn-Hargens are critical realism (whose leading representative is Roy Bhaskar), actor-network theory (ANT) and related post-ANT approaches such as the “ontological politics” of John Law and Annemarie Mol, the post-constructivist work of political ecologist Tim Forsyth and (Whitehead-inspired) environmental sociologist Michael Carolan, and to a lesser extent the enactive cognitivism of Francesco Varela, Evan Thompson, and others. (E-H does not discuss Varelian enactivism in any depth in the article, but he mobilizes its central concept of enaction to great effect.)

Other forms of post-constructivism or co-constructivism are only briefly mentioned, or not discussed at all in the article: these include ecosemiotics and biosemiotics (which is briefly mentioned), assemblage theory (as in the work of DeLanda), critical political-ecological approaches (like Escobar‘s, Swyngedouw‘s, or Prudham‘s), world-systems-inflected approaches (like Hornborg’s), social-nature analyses (like Braun‘s and Castree’s), the co-constructivism of Peter Taylor, dialectical approaches (like Redclift‘s), and much of what goes on in “critical affect theory” and the “ontological turn” among social theorists and philosophers including Isabelle Stengers, N. Katherine Hayles, Brian Massumi, John Protevi, and others. Even though its selection of reference points is relatively small, however, the article covers a great deal of ground.

Climate change as “multiple object”

The main argument presented in the article is that climate change epitomizes the kind of phenomenon that qualifies as a “multiple object.” This means it is an object that not only is perceived in many different ways (and which therefore calls for epistemological pluralism) but that actually is many different, though related, things (ontological pluralism), depending on how it is approached and performatively enacted (methodological pluralism).

Climate change, then, is multiply (i.e. plurally and differentially) enacted through practices that inscribe and translate it as they describe it. Different scientific disciplines, practical methods, and cultural worldviews approach and translate the “multiple object” of climate change each in their own ways — E-H lists eighteen of these, though that list could easily be expanded (as it is in his book). This sets up “interference patterns” between the different methodological/epistemological/ontological objects. And because there are so many and they are so different, the problem of climate change becomes insoluble unless we come up with a means of making sense of these differences. The goal of integral ecology is exactly that.

All of this is generally quite close to the argument presented by John Law in After Method (and by Law and Annemarie Mol in other writings), which I’ve mentioned before on this blog and which I summarize here (pdf warning). Esbjorn-Hargens’s argument, however, is innovative in the unique framework he presents to cover all possible ontological and epistemological positions in a coherent way. Following Wilber’s integral theory, he distinguishes, first, between approaches that orient themselves toward the objective exterior of entities (people, social groups, ecosystems, etc.) and those that orient themselves toward the subjective interior of those things; and, second, between approaches that focus on individuals and those that focus on collectives.

It is this double axis that results in integral theory’s most commonly reproduced diagram, known as “AQAL” (pronounced “ah-kwahl”), which stands for “all quadrants, all levels,” and which, at its most basic, looks something like this (though variations abound):

Neither of these two axes is a particularly original demarcation: atomism/holism (or individualism/collectivism) and subjectivism/objectivism are both commonly recognized as constituting key polarities within social theory. The differences between, e.g., phenomenology as a first-person individual perspective versus behaviorism as a third-person individual perspective, or ethnomethodology as a first-person collective perspective versus structuralism as a third-person collective (systemic) perspective, and between approaches that focus on structure (such as structuralism) versus those that focus on agency, are all well known. Models combining different such approaches are also well developed: e.g., Giddens’s structuration theory, Berger and Luckmann’s social constructionism, Archer’s morphogenetic realism, Laughlin, McManus, and d’Aquili’s  biogenetic structuralism (relatively unknown but closer to Wilber’s interests), and many others.

In Wilber’s case, combining the two axes results in a grid that, if not as original (let alone revolutionary) as he makes it out to be, is nevertheless very helpful in framing differences and recognizing patterns across approaches to understanding the world. I will leave more detailed discussion of E-H’s approach and of Wilber’s AQAL model to further blog posts and to the cross-blog discussion of Integral Ecology. For now I would like to only raise a few questions that I think it will be helpful to keep in mind as I (and others) prepare for reading that much larger and more ambitious tome.

I should also mention that E-H’s article is clearly aimed at an audience of integral theorists, so key integralist terms such as “Kosmic address” are left undefined and the AQAL model is left largely undefended. Its contextualization within the other post-constructivist approaches, however, is extremely useful, and the questions E-H raises are well worth considering. Based on this article alone, it’s worth concluding that integralism has entered into genuine and deep conversation with other approaches in environmental sociology, science and technology studies, and environmental thought more generally. (Zimmerman’s work had previously bridged the gap between integralism and environmental thought, but his collaboration with Esbjorn-Hargens promises to do much more.)

Orienting questions

A few orienting questions, then:

  • Most of the claims E-H makes for integral pluralism would seem to apply to other approaches that he integrates and subsumes within his own project (such as Law’s and Mol’s ontological politics, et al.). What, specifically, does his integral pluralism add to those other projects? What constraints and limitations come along with it?
  • To be more specific, is E-H’s main innovation the AQAL model itself? Since that model brings in Wilber’s integral developmentalist framework, is E-H’s integral pluralism, then, vulnerable to the same critiques as Wilber’s work? We might think of this as the “Ken Wilber question”: To what extent is Esbjorn-Hargens’s integral pluralism a product of Wilber’s integral theory project, and therefore limited in the ways that Wilber’s critics have identified, and to what extent is it its own novel achievement?

Thinking through the “Wilber question” is complicated, and it’s something that by and large has not been done by academics. Here are some initial thoughts as I move forward to doing that.

Ken Wilber as the fourth horseman?

1) Wilber is a brilliant, prolific, extremely widely-read, comprehensive and synthetic thinker. His intellectual ambition and dynamism are highly admirable. Among contemporary philosophers (academic or not), his deep understanding of both Western and Eastern philosophers, and of spiritual practices from around the world, is profound. That alone makes him an extremely refreshing philosopher to think with (or against).

2) He’s said and done some quirky things over the years. Some of these have made me (and others) harbor serious doubts about his work. These things include his proclamations of the divinity of controversial gurus like Adi Da (a.k.a. Da Free John, Bubba Free John, Franklin Jones), Andrew Cohen, and others; and his vehement responses to critics (which you can easily find online). He is a polarizing and controversial figure (critiques are easily found online, but this one and this web site are good places to start). The question here is whether his personal style and decisions/choices are integral (to use that word) to his thinking, or if the man and the ideas can be treated separately. To what extent do his errors in judgment (if one agrees that that’s what they are) reflect errors or weaknesses in the system of ideas?

3) That said, over the 35 years or so that he has been developing his “theory of everything,” the Wilberian paradigm has evolved extensively. He has revised and changed his thinking, often in response to criticism. Unfortunately, however (from my perspective), Wilber’s ideas have not undergone extensive and rigorous examination by scholarly peers in the fields that I’m most interested in, such as environmental theory, sociology, science and technology studies, academic philosophy, etc. This is largely because Wilber is not a credentialed academic, and he has by and large not addressed his work within the recognized fora for academic discussion. Integral theory’s growth seems to have occurred mostly in non-academic environments, such as corporate and organizational environments and among readers of contemporary spiritual literature (i.e., the kinds who hang out in the “New Age,” “Inspirational,” and “Philosophy” sections of bookstores, as opposed to those who hang out in university libraries).

Wilber does have a growing cadre of followers among academics, Esbjorn-Hargens and Zimmerman being two of the more prominent, and his Integral Institute and AQAL: Journal of Integral Theory and Practice (published by SUNY Press) are two sites where scholarship  in the integralist tradition has been growing. E-H and Zimmerman allow us the best entry point for thinking about integral theory’s usefulness for environmental thought. Zimmerman’s career in environmental philosophy has been long and very respectable; his book Contesting Earth’s Future remains one of the best overviews of radical environmental theory. E-H also shows himself, in articles like the one being discussed here, to be a nuanced and clear-thinking academic. At the same time, when academics not affiliated with Wilber’s work examine it closely, they do sometimes find it to be weak in various ways (see, e.g., here).

4) In the areas in which I’ve explored his ideas the most, particularly in his debates with others in the transpersonal psychology community (one of the few places in academe where he has gotten a substantial hearing), I have tended to side more with his critics than with him. In the transpersonal studies case, those critics have included Michael Washburn, Stan Grof, Gus diZerega, and Jorge Ferrer, all of whom see the spiritual and the physical in less hierarchical and more complementary terms than does Wilber. Wilber’s model appears to me to be too linear, hierarchical, and deterministic in its “developmentalism,” its positing of “levels” through which development (human or any other kind) necessarily proceeds sequentially. This feature of his thinking has gotten more flexible over the years — the AQAL model even suggests it may have become “multi-linear” rather than merely “linear” — but it still appears to be a prominent feature of his thinking.

At the same time, I see a lot of intriguing points of congruence between his thinking and the process-relational views that I’ve been developing in recent years. His use of the Buddhist/Asian nondual traditions, and his admiration for Whitehead’s process philosophy (which I’ll explore in a future post), are two of these. Re-examining his writing on these topics has convinced me that he clearly belongs on my list of process-relational theorists.

Related to this, one of the many intriguing, if all too brief, comments in E-H’s climate change article is footnote #11, where E-H notes that “Integral Theory situates its approach to enactment within an Integral Semiotics” that “draws heavily on the pan-semiotic perspective of C. S. Peirce (1958) and the field of biosemiotics.” Neither biosemiotics, nor Peirce, nor Whitehead were foundational to Wilber’s thinking in the earlier stages of his integral theory, but they have clearly entered into the mix in intriguing ways.

Another point of convergence, at least with E-H’s integral pluralism, is one that resonates strongly with the discussion (in the comments) following the last blog post in this series, my review of Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain. There, Mark Crosby had pointed out that Pickering’s version of cybernetics, which Crosby prefers to call “tensegrity” (following Bucky Fuller), and more or less what Stafford Beer calls “syntegrity”, is about “seeking assemblage leverage points within a democracy of objects.” In his summary of the value of Integral Pluralism for climate change, E-H says something almost identical: IP, he writes, “supports the identification of key leverage points within a dynamic landscape of actors, methods, and ontologies.”

This identification of leverage points within a dynamic landscape of actors (who), methods (how), and ontologies (what) is highly consonant, even congruent, with the post-constructivist process-relational onto-ethico-epistemologies that I see as most promising for environmental analysis. The starting point, in a process-relational ethic, is always “here, amidst the concerns in which we find ourselves,” and the first move is to distinguish how we are moving with, against, or alongside others, and what the potentials are for redirecting movement along better (more beautiful, ethical, and ecologically harmonious) lines. The movement of what we do is both ontological (it’s world-productive) and epistemological (it produces worlds as it comes to know those worlds). The differences between the worlds thereby produced call for an ethics and politics that recognizes pluralism in methods, in knowledge-practices (epistemology), and in worlds (ontology).

E-H’s Integral Pluralism recognizes that the worlds we and others craft — through our knowledge-making practices — are different, and that bridging those differences — the “interference patterns” that arise between the knowledge practices and the object(s) of knowledge — is a political and ethical task.

Here, however, is where I wonder whether the AQAL model measures up to the politics of this task. E-H suggests that integral pluralism has the advantage, over other post-constructivisms, of adding a “meta-framework that helps co-ordinate epistemological, methodological, and ontological variables and their complex interrelationships” (fn. 8). That meta-framework appears to be Wilber’s AQAL framework. E-H argues that integral theory “transcends and includes” other perspectives. One of the criticisms of Wilber’s work, in the past, has been that his system is too totalizing — that it slots others into a singular framework that reduces or erases the differences and distinctions of each approach/perspective/ontology in favor of a developmental model that, for all its flexibility, remains rigidly linear and hierarchical.

Not having followed it very closely, I’m not sure to what extent this remains an issue in integral theory today, nor to what extent it affects E-H’s and Zimmerman’s “integral ecology.” It’s something I’ll be watching for, and also something I’ll also be willing to reconsider, as I delve into Integral Ecology. I welcome readers to do that with me and with the other blogs that will be participating. (And let me know if you have a blog and would be interested in doing that.)

In the next post in this series, I will discuss Wilber’s (and Esbjorn-Hargens’s) use of and relationship to the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.

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Related posts:

  1. Eco-onto-politics 3: Wilber, Integralism, & Whitehead
  2. Climate change as a ‘multiple object’
  3. Process integralism
  4. climate change victims
  5. climate change supermodeling?
  6. Ostrom on climate change